How to build empathy in business

Empathy shouldn’t be a situational response that companies trot out during crises

empathy in business

In a crisis, people and institutions need support from other people and other institutions. That’s a business imperative, not just a lovely sentiment. Your company will be judged afterward on how it treated customers and employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the pandemic began, you’ve probably noticed a major uptick in articles, mentions, posts, and conversations about empathy in business. Much of this content stresses that if we want to retain our customers and employees after the pandemic is over, we need to show empathy for the extraordinary challenges they face right now.

This is good advice, albeit self-serving. So what is empathy, exactly, and how does it work in a business context as opposed to a personal one?

Empathy 101

Personal empathy is the ability to step into another’s shoes and understand what they are going through. The psychologists Daniel Goleman and Paul Ekman famously distinguished three types of empathy. First there’s cognitive empathy, the ability to understand how others are feeling, without feeling those emotions yourself. (This is not necessarily a positive trait. In fact, evil people can use the insights of cognitive empathy to manipulate others.)

Next there’s emotional empathy, which is the ability to physically feel the emotions of others. Emotional empathy helps us build personal connections with others, but it can be paralyzing.

The third category is compassionate empathy. Here we don’t just understand someone else’s predicament and share their emotions. We are also moved to take action and help them however we can.

As we’ll see, compassionate empathy can be very effective in business contexts. But first we need to consider how a major crisis, such as the current pandemic, affects human behavior.

The takeaway for business leaders is that customers and employees will interpret your first message as signal. Everything else is noise.

Crisis behavior

Our behaviors change in times of crisis, as do the ways in which we communicate and process information. Crises tend to provoke four distinct cognitive responses, according to Psychology of a Crisis, a report on crisis and emergency risk communication from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

First, we organically simplify the messages we get. In times of crisis we don’t remember as much as we normally do because we are distracted by worry. If the message is less than crystal clear, our chance of misinterpreting it is much greater.

Second, we hold onto our current beliefs. In a crisis we often default to prior assumptions and behavior patterns. During the pandemic, for example, many people ignored official pleas to wear masks, even though the data clearly showed that wearing a mask reduced the risk of contracting or transmitting the virus. This behavior wasn’t just a matter of selfishness. It was also caused by fear, and the inability to process information in anything but the simplest way. (Many mask skeptics didn’t think the virus could affect them personally because they couldn’t see it.)

Third, we tend to reach out to get even more information. More often than not, we are looking for better, happier information so that we can contradict something we heard that is discomforting. Because people are always more receptive to information that makes them feel better, it’s crucial that businesses provide accurate, clear data and recommendations in times of crisis.

Finally, we tend to believe the first message we hear. It’s our way of filling in blanks and uncertainty during a crisis. The takeaway for business leaders is that customers and employees will interpret your first message as signal. Everything else is noise.

Empathy for customers

Now that we’ve set the context, it’s time to get down to business: empathy. According to The Empathy Business, a UK consultancy, business empathy is “the emotional impact a company has on its people—staff and customers—and society—the next generation.”

This definition is useful, but far too limited. I would add that business empathy is also the ability to understand what your customers and employees are going through, along with the relevant context, and act accordingly. In other words, it’s compassionate empathy at the corporate level.

When the pandemic hit, for example, ServiceNow (the publisher of Workflow) announced a customer care plan to support its public and private sector customers in managing the pandemic. The plan included free emergency response apps that companies and government agencies used to manage complex workflows such as COVID-19 testing and contact tracing.

ServiceNow wasn’t alone. Distilleries started producing alcohol-based sanitizer products. Fashion designers turned out masks. And thousands of businesses sourced personal protective equipment and delivered it to frontline workers—free of charge.

These companies all understood the changed circumstances in which their customers were forced to operate. They realized that their response required sensitivity to those changes. They acted in ways that reflected their knowledge of the customers’ situations. Finally, they made sure their customers knew what they were doing, and why. This is compassionate empathy in action.

Empathy must permeate all aspects of your corporate culture. If your culture doesn’t encourage empathetic behavior by employees, you will not succeed in building an empathetic business.

Empathy for employees

At the same time, companies worldwide initiated work-from-home policies for their employees. That was driven by necessity, but many businesses displayed empathy in how they treated workers during the pandemic. (I’ll leave the companies anonymous.)

Some companies announced there would be no layoffs or salary cuts during the crisis. Others implemented technology purchase allowances so their employees could buy webcams, Wi-Fi upgrades, ergonomic chairs, and other gear to make them more comfortable and productive while working at home.

And some companies made clear to employees that there would be no repercussions if they needed time off during the work week to take care of kids, elderly parents, or even just themselves.

The common thread? These companies all showed empathy by making clear that employee well-being was their first priority.

Empathy is a marathon

Here are concrete steps you can take to build a more empathetic business. First, empathy can’t just be a temporary response to a crisis. It means committing to permanent changes in how you treat customers and employees.

Also, empathy is not just a matter of implementing the right programs and policies. Fundamentally, it’s about culture. Empathy must permeate all aspects of your corporate culture. If your culture doesn’t encourage empathetic behavior by employees, you will not succeed in building an empathetic business.

For example, many employers now use digital monitoring tools to track the daily activities of remote employees. These tools have been around for years in office settings. To many workers, however, being monitored through your home computer feels like a more serious privacy violation.

However, remote monitoring can be done effectively and without rancor if the company culture supports transparency and trust. In a June 2020 CNBC article, Atlas COO Rachel Welch, said managers “should go into remote work conditions with trust and empathy, not with fear and close monitoring.”

So let employees know what you are doing and why you are doing it—for example, monitoring may be required for regulatory compliance. And take the time to listen to their concerns. Much like a friendship or a marriage, honest dialogue helps build trust between employers and employees.

Context matters

For me, the paradigmatic example of business empathy during a crisis happened in 1982, when a lunatic (who was never caught) injected cyanide into Tylenol capsules, killing seven people in the Chicago area. I lived there at the time. Trust me, it was very scary.

The FDA and the FBI told Tylenol manufacturer Johnson & Johnson that it didn’t need to recall Tylenol products completely. The feds also advised Johnson & Johnson that it had no legal liability for injuries or deaths that resulted from tampering with the capsules.

CEO James Burke ignored this advice. Instead he announced that the company’s first priority would be to “protect the people.” Burke ordered a complete Tylenol recall. He established a fund to compensate the families of all the victims. The company set up a 24/7 hotline that anyone could call to get information about Johnson & Johnson’s response to the crisis. Over the long term, Johnson & Johnson started delivering its medications in caplets rather than capsules to prevent future attackers from injecting them with poison.

In short, the company went out of its way to respond empathetically to a crisis for which it wasn’t legally responsible. This strategy paid off for Johnson & Johnson: A 2018 Reader’s Digest survey found Tylenol was the most trusted pain reliever in the U.S.

Empathy after COVID

I don’t think business conditions will ever revert to what they were before the pandemic. I’m not alone, as evidenced by all the chatter about the next or new normal that you hear in business circles these days. No matter what the world looks like after COVID, business empathy shouldn’t be a situational response that companies discard after the crisis is over.

Why not? For one thing, there are clear business benefits to empathy. It can help companies retain and grow the trust of customers, employees, and the world at large. More importantly, empathy is good for the soul of your employees, your customers, and your business.

At the end of the day, business empathy provides the emotional and social framework for decisions that relieve fear and help people in need. So why would you want that effort to end after the crisis inevitably passes? If you are a truly empathetic business, then you wouldn’t, would you?

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